New Report: District of Columbia Still Failing to Provide Many Key Child Welfare Services

WASHINGTON, DC — The District of Columbia continues to provide inadequate care and services to the District’s abused and neglected children and vulnerable families, according to a new report released today, falling short of 42 benchmarks for reforming its dysfunctional child welfare system under federal court orders secured by Children’s Rights.

The report (PDF) was issued by the independent monitor appointed by the federal court to track reforms required by the class action known as LaShawn A. v. Fenty, brought by Children’s Rights in 1989 on behalf of thousands of children dependent on the DC child welfare system.

According to the report, unacceptably large numbers of children in foster care in the District continue to be moved between too many different foster homes and left to languish too long while awaiting adoption. The number of children adopted out of foster care has steadily declined for more than four years running. Services aimed at keeping families together and reunifying foster children with their biological families remain badly inadequate.

While the report credits the District with correcting some of the serious, ongoing problems that led Children’s Rights to file a motion for contempt of court in July 2008, it says the District has succeeded only in stabilizing its Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) after it had fallen into crisis, and it notes that CFSA’s current performance could be described in terms similar to those used in a progress report issued nearly two years ago, in June 2007, in which the monitor wrote: “Many children and families continue to receive less than optimal services and supports. High quality planning, decision making, and service delivery is not yet the norm.”

The report comes just two days before District officials and Children’s Rights are scheduled to appear in court for a hearing before United States District Court Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan to determine whether the District can put on witnesses at an upcoming hearing on the District’s motions to end court oversight of its child welfare system — and Children’s Rights’ motion for contempt. The report flatly states that, “as of January 31, 2009, the District has not met the expected performance set forth by the court.”

“The federal court has found time and again that DC’s abused and neglected children and vulnerable families are entitled to a level of care and service that the District is still simply failing to provide,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is difficult to imagine what evidence the District could present that would offset the long list of crystal-clear statistics indicating that its child welfare system continues to fall far short of its obligations to both the court and the children and families who depend on it.”

Among the measures on which the report shows that CFSA’s performance remains inadequate:

  • The number of children adopted out of DC foster care continues to plummet. Between 2005 and 2008, the number of adoptions finalized in DC annually fell from more than 250 to less than 100. CFSA continues to fall far short of court-ordered requirements for the timeliness of adoptions.
  • Too many children are being placed in non-family homes, including shelters and overcrowded group homes. As of January 31, 2009, 30 percent of children in DC foster care were living in non-family foster homes — and the number of children placed with families has decreased steadily over the past four years. At the end of January 2009, 442 children were living in group homes or institutions, and 22 percent of the children in group homes were living in homes that exceeded their licensed capacity of eight children.
  • DC children spend too much time in foster care. Of the 2,237 children in foster care in the District, 60 percent had been in custody for 24 months or more at the end of 2008, and nearly 600 children had been languishing in foster care for five years or more.
  • Children in DC foster care get moved around to too many different foster homes. Of children who had been in foster care for 24 months or more as of January 31, 2009, 69 percent had been shuffled between three or more different homes. The LaShawn A. court order requires that no more than 50 percent of these children experience more than two different placements; the District has also failed to meet court-ordered requirements for placement stability among children in foster care for shorter periods of time — often leading, the report says, to disruptions in school attendance, developmental delays, and other poor outcomes.
  • CFSA is not providing adequate support and services to vulnerable families. In January 2009, only 46 percent of children in out-of-home care received required weekly visits with their biological parents — which are critical in supporting the goal of reunification. The LaShawn A. court order requires these visits in at least 85 percent of cases. CFSA is also providing appropriate services to only 42 percent of children and families involved in the DC child welfare system, the report says, and is falling short of court-ordered requirements for caseworker visits to families receiving in-home services or slated for reunification.
  • Children placed in shelters and group homes remain there too long. The LaShawn A. court order prohibitsCFSA from keeping children under age 12 in group homes longer than 30 days, and children under six are not to be placed in group homes at all. As of January 31, 2009, however, 14 children under age 12 had been in group homes longer than 30 days and nine children under six had been placed in group homes. Eighteen children (nine of whom are under age six) had been left in emergency shelters longer than 30 days, and one child had been living in a shelter for more than three months.

Children’s Rights filed the class action known as LaShawn A. v. Fenty in 1989 on behalf of the more than 2,500 abused and neglected children then dependent on the District’s child welfare system. Following a 1991 trial on the merits and a finding by the court that the system violated applicable law, a court-enforceable reform plan was negotiated between Children’s Rights and defendants in 1993 and approved by the court. In the years that followed, the District made only minimal progress toward achieving the court-mandated reforms, prompting the court to impose the unprecedented remedy of a federal takeover of the system’s management in 1995.

The District regained control of the beleaguered agency in 2000, after establishing the cabinet-level Child and Family Services Agency. CFSA initially made improvements in its performance but still has not achieved compliance with the court-ordered reform plan. It remains under court oversight.

In recent years, CFSA’s overall performance has declined sharply, prompting Children’s Rights to file a motion for a finding of contempt against the District in July of 2008. Subsequent negotiations produced a new court order in October 2008 requiring the District to work with external consultants to stabilize the failing system and develop a plan for meeting the remaining requirements of the LaShawn A. court order.

After achieving most of the requirements of the October 2008 court order, District officials filed motions seeking the end of court oversight altogether, prompting Children’s Rights in January 2009 to renew its earlier motion for contempt.

The full text of today’s report — and a complete collection of documents related to LaShawn A. v. Fenty — are available at www.childrensrights.org/dc.